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Top dogs: since 1887, when mountain dogs long associated with the Grand-Saint-Bernard Hospice in Valais became an official breed, the St. Bernard has been the Swiss National Dog. Swiss News journeys to Martigny for a little one-on-one time with these iconic pooches.

"St. Bernards are no longer used as mountain rescue dogs," says Nathalie Vouilloz, leading a visitor around the Music et Chiens du Saint-Bernard in Martigny, Canton Valais. She's referring to the dogs' traditional role saving victims of blizzards or avalanches. "Nowadays more compact dogs are preferred--German Shepherds or Labradors; they are helicoptered in with search teams and paramedics."

Museum head Vouilloz says this role change is the subject of a new movie being made for the museum, which will show today's different breed of rescuer how it was back in the day, when pilgrims heading over the Great Saint Bernard Pass on their way from Canterbury to Rome got caught in the snow: St. Bernards would set out from the hospice with monks and guides, the dogs walking ahead to forge a path for the humans in the deep snow and sniffing out the whereabouts of stranded wayfarers.

This film will feature the "voice" of the famous St. Bernard, Barry--who lived from 1800 to 1814 and is credited with saving 40 lives. Barry now "lives on" in a tribute to the taxidermist's art, at Bern's Museum of Natural History.

Inside the museum

The Musee et Chiens du Saint-Bernard opened its doors in this Valais town in 2006. Martigny is located in the lowlands 39 km from the hospice, 2,473-metres high on the mountain pass, where it all began. The access road to the pass is closed to motor traffic from October to June; the only way to reach the hospice in deepest winter is on skis or snowshoes.

The Martigny museum, devoted primarily to the history of the hospice and of the St. Bernard breed, is open all year and features a kennel area where eight real-life canines interact with museum visitors.

The museum, run by the Fondation Bernard et Caroline de Watteville, is just down the road from Martigny's major claim to fame, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, where cultural pilgrims come to take in world-class art exhibits and concerts. "In fact, Leonard Gianadda, the creator of the art foundation, is the driving force behind the creation of this museum, too," says Vouilloz.

The St. Bernard museum occupies a handsomely renovated, wood-beamed military arsenal, bordering Martigny's Roman amphitheatre. Besides its core function, it also houses high-quality and beautifully catalogued temporary exhibitions of an ethnographic, crafts-oriented nature.

But its core mission and permanent collection acquaints 50,000 visitors annually with the hospice--which dates back to 1050--and presents a 15-minute movie featuring the hair-raising journey of Francis the Pilgrim, beset by both blizzard and avalanche, as he makes his way over the pass. His rescue is, of course, included as well.


Images of the past

Other exhibits feature imagery of St. Bernards before they became a breed--when they were just big, strong, mountain farm dogs (they are related to other Swiss breeds, like the Bernese Mountain Dog)--and trace their path through the late 19th century, by which time the puppies were already a favourite subject for saccharine paintings focused on their lovability. Fully grown dogs were portrayed as strong, gentle guardians of small children, and also became favourite icons for advertising imagery of all kinds--not just Swiss. (Continuing to this day, many remember the 2008 Financial Times campaign that featured a St. Bernard running through deep snow with a rolled-up copy of the paper attached to its collar, instead of the proverbial small cask of brandy.)


"That little cask, by the way," says Vouilloz, "is thought to have been something painters dreamed up, and so it's a relatively late add-on to the iconography." It may have entered St. Bernard lore, but, she says, was not a real feature when the dogs were on rescue missions--although they might have had a small knapsack strapped to them.

The museum exhibition ends with St. Bernards on postage stamps and in movies, e.g. the Beethoven film series, rounding out characterisations of the dogs as smart and brave, protective, huggable and affable, but also with an independent streak that can veer to stubborn or prankish.


The museum's kennel area

Raymond Baudat, a retired Swiss army dog-handler, is looking after the dogs at the museum on the day of my visit. Every morning, eight dogs are driven across town from the Fondation Barry breeding kennels (more about those kennels in a bit) to spend from 10:00 to 18:00 at the museum. Here, they have the run of glassed-in rooms containing large beds, a care room where they are brushed and maybe even given a massage, a garden and an indoor/outdoor area where they can interact with visitors.

Meet Azur (7) and Jella (4), both females. St. Bernards have an instep height between 65 and 70 cm (2 and 2.3 feet) and weigh between 50 and 85 kg (110 and 187 lbs); if they stand and place their front paws on your shoulders (which some are prone to do, in an effusive attitude that suggests "Come on, big hug"), their head towers above yours--and I am 5'8". Anyone expecting cuddly-toy furriness will be surprised because, long or short haired, their lanky, lumbering frames are what stand out.

Any anthropomorphising tendency to see "sadness" in their eyes disappears instantly in the presence of those tirelessly wagging tails; a wish on the dogs' parts to cuddle, which alternates between winning bids to be petted; wrestling playfully with each other; or plopping down for a brief snooze, one eye open so as not to miss anything. Despite their enthusiasm, there is nothing cloying, hyper, or overexcited about these dogs.

Sitting on the edge of a raised platform onto which the dogs are in the habit of hopping, you may soon find one of them sitting shoulder to shoulder with you, perhaps placing a paw on your palm in an apparent canine version of hand-holding. Face to face, you won't be spared extravagant "kissing", i.e. generous, slathering licks.

Handler Baudat makes the point, however, that one should not allow St. Bernards' "friendliness", or any other trait, to be misinterpreted through an ignorance of fundamental dog psychology. Specifically, he mentions museum visitors, who amble into the kennel section carrying a small dog and expressing the wish to have their pint-sized pooch photographed with the giant dogs. Anticipating a friendly reception, they are dismayed when the St. Bernards noisily manifest anything but friendliness, barking in their deep, stentorian way from their glass enclosures. "The point is this," says Baudat, "this is their territory, and there are a number of them here so they're a 'pack'. It's normal for people to come in, so they accept it; but lapdog or not, another animal on their territory is an intruder and they don't like it."

St. Bernards are usually good-humoured and easy-going when other animals are known to them; a characteristic, which I later saw demonstrated by their utterly inclusive attitude to a cat that lives in the Fondation Barry kennels.

Fondation Barry

Fondation Barry in Martigny--an entirely separate entity from the museum, although they collaborate closely--has been running the Grand-Saint-Bernard Hospice dog breeding facilities since 2005. It also kennels the animals during the winter months, before most are returned to the hospice for the summer. To operate, Fondation Barry relies heavily on donations, membership dues and dog "godparents" who pay between SFr 180 and 1,000 a year for the privilege.

Thirty dogs, mostly female, aged seven months to nine years old, live here; the thirty-first, doyenne Tenia, officially designated a "retired breeding bitch", is 13 years old and lives in the family home of foundation director Rudolf Thomann. Perpetrating the Barry tradition, one male dog is always named Barry--the current name holder is Homer-Barry (5).

Manuel Gaillard is in charge of the dogs and kennel management, along with his team of fully qualified and trainee carers. Carine Zamprogno-Assis is the carer on duty. She's just been to walk one-year-old St. Bernard Thalia in the company of five-year-old godmother Elia and her nanny. "A friend of Thalia's [another dog] came with us on the walk," announces Elia proudly, as she helps brush Thalia in a cosy grooming area, where two other "friends" of the dog, Varina and Saphira, have come to join us.

Kennel life

Gaillard explains to me that mornings begin at 7:30 with walks, a meal, cleaning and wind-down at 11:00. Afternoon activities are from 13:30 to 18:30 and include another walk and meal. Brushing, and sometimes a massage, are part of the daily routine, and all dogs are taught little tricks--like opening and closing locker doors on command--for which they are rewarded with dog treats.


These dogs eat dry food, nutritionally calibrated for puppies, active adult and older dogs. Several of the dogs share compartmented spaces with dimensions and ceiling heights similar to human rooms. These are heated just enough to take the edge off, since St. Bernards prefer cooler temperatures. Each dog has a bed and blanket; they share a bucket of fresh water. Dogs can access a sheltered outdoor space, and an open outdoor space filled with toys beyond that.

Even though St. Bernards don't generally care much for swimming, I am told that when the dogs are up at the pass during the summer months, some will play in the lake. But as for baths, which happen about every two months, they are decidedly "unpopular".

Family dogs

Depending on their personalities, Fondation Barry St. Bernards may be trained as avalanche dogs, for target search, as hiking, pack or cart dogs--as well as therapy dogs in hospitals and nursing homes, or "prevention" dogs that visit schools to teach children proper interaction with canines.

Some are also show dogs, winning distinctions at events across Switzerland and neighbouring countries. Along with public visits to the museum and kennels, or the hospice in summer, and visits from "godparents", these pooches have full daily schedules, which Gaillard says, it is important not to overdo. "The dogs need down time, too, and St. Bernards need a lot of sleep."

But to the buyers of one of the 20 or so pups born each year at the kennel, a St. Bernard is first and foremost a family pet. That is, when someone is lucky enough to get one of the puppies, which sell for SFr 2,400. The prestige of having a pup from the original source of the breed, Gaillard says, is great, so the waiting list is long.

"Demand," he says wryly, "far exceeds supply."

Practical information


Grand-Saint-Bernard Hospice at the Mont-Joux Pass: The museum, shop and kennel are open daily, June through September, from 10:00-18:00. Adult entry is SFr 10. It is reachable by car, bus, hiking and cycling. Hotel accommodation and restaurants are available; staying at the hospice is reserved for hikers, cyclists and retreat-goers. The church and treasury are open all year; entry is free. In winter, the only way to reach the hospice is on skis or snowshoes; hospice accommodation is available. Aside from retreats, the monks organise year-round pilgrimages and mountain camps,

Musee et Chiens du Saint-Bernard in Martigny: Permanent and temporary exhibitions. Eight dogs are on site daily. And there is a restaurant and shop. It's open year-round from 10:00-18:00. Adult entry is SFr 12. Audio guides are available in English for SFr 3.

Fondation Barry du Grand-Saint-Bernard in Martigny: Visit the dogs in their kennel. There is also a shop. Open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, except June through September, from 14:00-16:30. Entry is free.

Activities with St. Bemard dogs

Walks in Martigny: 1.5-hour walks through the vineyards leave Fondation Barry kennels at 13:30 every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from January 7 to April 30, 2011. Adults pay SFr 45; children aged 6-16 pay SFr 9. Price includes kennel visit.

Sled rides (for children under 10): In January 2011, every Sunday; in February, every Saturday and Sunday. Meeting point is in front of the Champex-Lac (Verbier) tourism office at 9:50 or 13:50. Adults pay SFr 45; children aged 6-16 pay SFr 9.The 1.5-hour outings require a minimum of six participants and are limited to a maximum of 16 participants.

Summer walks at the pass: From July 1 to September 11, 2011, 1.5-hour "athletic" walks with the dogs leave the hospice at 10:00; easy walks leave at 14:00. Adults pay SFr 48 and children aged 6-16 pay SFr 8; includes museum visit.

** Book all activities above ahead at 027 722 65 42. Walks are limited to 10 participants. **

Learn more about St. Bernards at and

Martigny is close to many ski resorts: Verbier (10 km); Crans-Montana (42 km); Zermatt (53 km); France's Chamonix (25 km); and Italy's Courmayeur in Valle d'Aosta (33 km).

Learn more about Martigny at and
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Title Annotation:culture
Author:Mangold-Vine, Gail
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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